Golf course agronomy

Agronomy is a science and a practice that looks at agriculture from an integrated, holistic perspective

by James Rose
An example of a well kept green at Greywolf Golf Course.
Science and technology work together to create an ideal environment for a well kept golf course. — Photo Courtesy of Bob Novecosky

Ranging from the Highlands of Nova Scotia to the foothills of Southern Alberta, all golf courses have one thing in common—their surface is turf grass. Just like all plants, turf grass grows best in the right environmental conditions. It’s a job that falls, in the case of Greywolf Golf Course in Panorama, B.C., to Bob Novecosky, director of agronomy. He uses science and technology in the practice of agronomy to create an ideal environment for playing golf.

No matter where you are in the country, factors such as the selection of grass to suit the environmental conditions and course drainage management are key responsibilities when it comes to the overall user experience of a golf course. By being proactive and making the right choices on these matters, agronomists can cut down on the amount of water, fertilizer and pest control products needed.

To survive in the environment they’re put in, all green grasses need a combination of sunlight, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients. The nutrient needed most for turf grass is nitrogen, but it needs to be controlled and managed because it ultimately forces the top growth of turf grass. Nitrogen is an example of a macronutrient, which are nutrients given in relatively larger amounts. Other macronutrients for turf grass include phosphorus and potassium. A variety of micronutrients are also applied to turf albeit in smaller amounts, including calcium, magnesium, sulphur and zinc.

A very important responsibility for turf managers, superintendents and agronomy directors is a golf course’s fertilization program, which varies from course to course but directly impacts the esthetic appeal and overall health of a course. Responsible individuals base these programs on soil tests in order to accurately apply the correct mix and amount of fertilizer.

Turf managers then look at the soil profile for any layering or organic buildup which consists of decomposing roots, stems, and shoots. Golf courses have an amazing number of plants and they produce lots of organic matter, and this matter creates layers that ultimately change the way water moves through the soil. High-traffic areas such as tee boxes and greens create soil compaction, which also impedes the normal flow of water through the soil.

To increase air flow and water movement and to reduce organic matter (thatch) golf courses use a technique called aeration which pokes holes in the top layers of the soil. Aeration allows roots to grow stronger and deeper in the soil as well as providing the roots with the oxygen and nutrients needed for optimal health. Over time, this results in a higher quality playing surface for golfers to enjoy.

For Novecosky, the devil is in the details for proper turf management and overall course condition. Greywolf is a mountain course with a clubhouse elevation of 3,800 feet and an elevation change of over 300 feet. While playing the course, golfers will feel as though they have been driven on a rollercoaster through the mountains. However, what sets Greywolf apart from other mountain golf courses is ultimately the turf that golfers play on.

Greywolf was designed and built with bentgrass greens, which is typical for most northern courses, but also boasts bentgrass tees and fairways. This results in the manicured appearance of the course. Bentgrass is a much finer textured and tighter knit grass than your typical Kentucky bluegrass. For this reason, players find that their golf balls roll much farther.

There are significant and unique challenges to being situated in the mountains and having an extended and deep snowpack throughout winter. The exposure to a high degree of disease pressure is the primary challenge. However, with a finely tuned winterization program, the turf has proven to be successful in warding off disease throughout the long Panorama winters.

For example, under Novecosky’s direction, a sophisticated green ventilation system is installed over the winter months to help keep the greens as healthy as possible. The system involves running fresh air through a piping system between bubble wrap and the canopy of the green to help regulate the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide exposed to the green.

Other challenges facing Novecosky and unique to Greywolf include the threat of mountain pine beetle to the course’s trees. In addressing the beetle, Novecosky takes a proactive approach to identifying and removing trees contaminated with beetle larvae. Novecosky also uses special pheromones to help deter pine beetles from choosing trees to spawn in. When his team has located an infected tree, they burn it down.

With close to 25 years of experience in course condition management, Novocesky still finds that “it takes a number of years to fully master the nuances of a particular course.” He added, “Each one has its own microclimates and Mother Nature is always variable.” Greywolf, with its relatively shorter season and mountainous geography, is definitely a challenging course for even the most seasoned turf managers. However, for Novecosky, these challenges are “what really makes my job interesting.”

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